The small work on a linen napkin, believed to have been painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, made headlines in 2010 when an unidentified Virginia woman bought it, with a doll and a plastic cow, at a flea market in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., for $7. But an investigation at the Baltimore Museum of Art suggests the art was loaned to the museum by owner Saidie May in 1937 and stolen in 1951, shortly after May's death, The Washington Post reported Friday.
The museum and the FBI are investigating.
The highly anticipated auction by the Potomack Company of Renoir's "On the Banks of the Seine" has been canceled and a legal showdown over the painting's ownership has begun, the newspaper said. Entities involved include the museum, the company that insured the work and paid a $2,500 claim after it was stolen from the museum, the auction house and the woman who bought it at the flea market.
The painting's true owner may be the company that insured the Renoir, said Christopher Marinello, executive director of the Art Loss Council, a database of stolen and lost art, who said in the mid-20th-century art insurers had policies mandating entitlement to ownership when claim-paid artwork is recovered.
"Does the insurance company own the painting? Of course they do. When an insurance company paid out on losses (in 1951), the title resided with the insurer."
Museum officials are unsure who insured the painting, which the auction house estimated is worth $75,000-$100,000, the newspaper said.